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Vayechi: And He Lived

I need to begin with a warning/disclaimer: this dvar Torah contains violent scenes that may be disturbing to some listeners. This is not one of those feel-good talks.

Not only is Vayechi the last portion of Bereishit, of Genesis, it is one of the last portions of the secular year, read at a time of great darkness.

A brief recap: Jacob lived the final 17 years of his life in Egypt. Before he died, he asked Joseph to promise that he would bury him in the same place as his fathers. He blessed Joseph’s two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, elevating them to the status of his own sons. Jacob then called his sons (but not his daughter, apparently) to his death bed and blessed all of them, assigning to each his role as a tribe: Judah would produce leaders, legislators and kings, priests would come from Levi, scholars from Issachar, seafarers from Zebulun, schoolteachers from Simeon, soldiers from Gad, judges from Dan, olive-growers from Asher, etc. Reuben was rebuked for “confusing his father’s marriage bed”, Simeon and Levi for the massacre of Shechem and the plot against Joseph. Naphtali was granted the swiftness of a deer, Benjamin the ferociousness of a wolf, and Joseph beauty and fertility. Joseph, too, died in Egypt, at the age of 110. He also instructed that his bones be taken out of Egypt and buried in the land of his fathers, but this would happen only with the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt many years later.

This year we are reading from the third third in the triennial cycle. Before I received the exact break-down of what we actually read in the Torah today, I looked at my “cheat sheet” and found that the third third starts with chapter 49, verse 27 - the blessing for Benjamin, Jacob’s favourite son. All of Jacob’s blessings are a form of poetry, very evocative, engaging in a great deal of intertextuality. To understand the blessings even a little bit, we need to appreciate that they interlace commendation with condemnation. They are rich in wordplays which are impossible to capture in English. They contain cryptic phrasing and rare expressions including unusual and probably very ancient divine names and have long provoked disagreements among interpreters. In short, they are very mysterious.

Today I will explore one of the hidden references in the blessing for Benjamin, which really isn’t a blessing at all, but a prophecy.

בּנְימִין זְאב יִטְרָף בַּבּׂקֶר יוֹכַל עַד וְלָעֶרֶב יְחַלֵּק שָׁלָל.

The translations are quite varied, revealing the difficulty of interpretation: “Benjamin is a wolf, he will prey; in the morning he will devour plunder, and in the evening he will divide the spoil.” (Chabad website) “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; In the morning he consumes the foe, And in the evening he divides the spoil.” (Jewish Publication Society) “Benjamin is a predatory wolf; in the morning he will devour prey and in the evening he will distribute spoils.” (Stone) “Binyamin, a wolf that tears-to-pieces! In the morning he devours prey, and then, in the evening, divides up the spoil.” (Fox)

Remember that his mother Rachel named Benjamin Ben Oni, child/son of my affliction, my suffering, but after her death Jacob renamed him Benjamin, child/son of the right hand, of the south. The first place my research took me was to RaShI, the great 11th century Biblical and Talmudic commentator, perhaps the greatest commentator of all time. He told me about the intertextuality, that בּנְימִין זְאב יִטְרָף refers to the episode of the concubine, the pilegesh of Gibeah which triggered a bloody civil war amongst the tribes. It is recorded in Judges chapters 19 to 21and is one of the most horrific stories in the whole of TaNaKh.

A synopsis. The story begins with a telling phrase: “In those days, when there was no king in Israel”, a Levite from the mountains of Ephraim had a concubine who left him and returned to the house of her father in Bethlehem where she stayed for four months. He travelled to retrieve her, and on four occasions over five days her father managed to persuade him to delay their departure. On the fifth day, the Levite declined to postpone their journey any longer. They set out late in the day, despite the concubine’s father urging them to wait until early the next morning. As they approached Jebus (Jerusalem), their servant suggested they stop for the night, but the Levite refused to stay in a Jebusite city, and they continued on to Gibeah.

They arrived in Gibeah just at nightfall. The Levite and his party waited in the public square, but no one offered to extend them the customary hospitality. Eventually, an old man came in from working in the field and inquired about their situation. He too was from the mountains of Ephraim, but had lived among the Benjaminites for some time. He invited them to stay at his house, warning them not to spend the night in the open square. He brought them into his house, and gave fodder to the donkeys; they washed their feet, ate and drank. Suddenly men of the city surrounded the house and beat on the door and called to the old man, "Bring out the man who came to your house, that we may be intimate with him." The Ephraimite host offered his own maiden daughter and the Levite's concubine instead. When the men would not be dissuaded, the Levite thrust his concubine out the door. They abused her all night, not letting her go until dawn, when she collapsed outside the door, where the Levite found her the next morning. Finding her unresponsive, he placed her on a donkey and continued his journey home. Upon his return, he carved up her body into twelve pieces which he sent to all the Israelite tribes, demanding revenge.

Outraged, the tribes mobilized to demand justice and gathered at Mizpah. They sent men through all the tribe of Benjamin demanding that they deliver up those who committed the crime, but the Benjaminites refused. Instead, they gathered to defend Gibeah. The rest of the tribes marched on the town; thousands died on both sides. In the end, the tribe of Benjamin was decimated, and the rest of the tribes swore they would never give a Benjaminite their daughter as a wife. But they later took pity on the Benjaminites because they could not countenance a breach like this in the tribes. So they turned on the one city that had not joined the rout, killed everyone except the virgin girls who they captured and gave to the Benjaminites as wives. But there weren’t enough of them, so the Benjaminites stole dancing maidens of Shiloh for wives.

This gruesome story ends the Book of Judges. And it ends as it began: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did as he pleased.”

According to RaShI, the great 11th century Torah commentator, the tribe of Benjamin is the wolf who preyed on the concubine of Gibeah, and as a result of the actions of a few in that city, the entire tribe suffered terribly. Ben Oni. What a terrible prophecy Benjamin receives in the form of a “blessing” from his father.

The primary teaching of the BeShT, the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism, is that God is in all things. It’s an easy thing to say and easy to accept and understand when things are good. But where is God in the face of great evil? A very difficult theological question.

The story of the concubine of Gibeah begins and ends with the statement : there was no king in Israel. In Hassidic stories, the king is always understood to be the Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy Blessed One. While we can’t draw that conclusion here because Hassidism developed centuries later, God is entirely absent from this story (although there were some sacrifices and oaths made to God during the ensuing war). But God does not speak nor act. How can we understand this story which is part of our canon? Why is it included?

Clearly the story is allegorical, archetypal. None of the characters is given a name and they are all quite unidimensional. It has a dream-like quality to it. There are many holes in it; it doesn’t quite hang together. It is reminiscent of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, but the outcome is completely different, perhaps because there the visitors were angels and here they are human.

During one of our spiritual directions sessions, my spiritual director guided me through a meditative process which took me on a very strange journey. I saw a vision of matriarch Rachel weeping for her children, for her favourite son, Benjamin, whose tribe has fallen so low. As we read in Jeremiah 31:15: “A cry is heard on a height - Wailing, bitter weeping - Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted For her children, who are gone.” From there, my vision became Christological. Remember that yesterday was Christmas and this portion is always read around this time of year. I wonder about the synchronicity of this timing.

In the second part of the vision, I saw the two extremes - the inspiring Christmas story of a couple seeking safe shelter and finding it, albeit in a stable, and this story of a couple seeking safe shelter and finding anything but. I then saw mother Mary weeping for her son who was born in that safe haven and murdered years later. My vision was of Michelangelo’s Pieta - a mother weeping over the body of her dead son, both so incredibly beautiful. And then my vision shifted to the Shekhinah, the feminine aspect of God, weeping. Weeping because God has been sacrificed by human beings in these stories. There is no king in the land. God is absent … not destroyed, but absent, eclipsed.

I couldn’t help but relate this vision to current events. Where is God in the current evil? God’s children are stabbing and shooting and killing each other. Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, you name it. Human beings are sacrificing God in the name of God. The cycle of violence goes on and on.

What does the BeShT teach about the presence of God in enormous suffering? When a person has any affliction or sorrow, it is the sorrow of the Shekhinah, the holy presence, the divine feminine. She suffers with us, as we are taught in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin p. 46a. “Rabbi Meir said: When a person suffers, what expression does the Shekhinah use? My head is too heavy for me, my arm is too heavy for me.” She suffers with us. She went with us into exile in Babylon, she was present when the Benjaminites raped and murdered the concubine of Gibeah, when the Levite cut up her body, and when the rest of the tribes retaliated with a terrible and bloody war, she was with us in the concentration camps, and she is with us now. Anytime anyone is suffering, the Shekhinah is screaming in identification with their pain. We can try to leave the place of pain, but the pain goes with us. There is nowhere to go. We must call to God from that narrow place; there prayer makes a difference.

The BeShT teaches that when we understand that the Shekhinah is part of us, is suffering when we suffer, is afflicted in all our afflictions, we understand the Shekhinah fully. We hold two things that are opposite at the same time. The one who sent us into exile is also sent into exile along with us. Abraham Joshua Heschel called it God’s pathos. And the mothers did weep.

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